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Honesty at Work

True Leaders model a willingness to invite disparate voices. There are multiple opportunities each day to do this. Over the course of many meetings, informal conversations and performance reviews, the leader’s solicitation of and reaction to a point of view that differs from their own is crucial to the establishment of an organizational culture which permits professional disagreement. In an environment of respectful disagreement where co-workers not only receive periodic training to offer disparate opinions courteously, agreeably disagreeing with others in the workplace is not only possible, but achievable. When co-workers are encouraged to do so, disagreeing with one another constructively and respectfully increases productivity and job satisfaction.

Billy Joel crooned that “honesty is such a lonely word,” and he may have been right. People are often leery of being honest for fear that they may hurt another’s feelings. However, sincere honesty can only exist in a climate of trust. Otherwise, what may superficially be disguised as honesty is in reality thinly veiled rudeness.  When less-than-honest relationships (i.e., where an absence of trust exists) develop among teammates in an organization, phoniness and deceit can creep in. Sincere honesty can be very tricky to manage since it can be twisted and used in harsh and hurtful ways. Again, leadership’s consistent modeling of constructive disagreement and sincere honesty provides the essential model for others to follow. It is the “how” honesty is utilized that makes it an asset in the workplace. Authentic and diplomatic honesty is generally seen as a virtue that is valued in the workplace and is beneficial to organizational well-being.

While research strongly supports the value of honesty in the workplace, most of us have had only modest success being honest in our personal lives. In our quest to spare hurt feelings, we do not behave openly and honestly with the people we count as friends and close acquaintances. In fact, absent the supervisory model of honesty and respectful disagreement found in the workplace, privately we are more prone to soften our words, omit important points and simply go along with our friend—even if we disagree with them. In these instances, we tend to holster blunt frankness in favor of expressing sympathy to avoid hurt feelings. When we are  encouraged to interact with co-workers, there is the added safety of a supervisor's intervention in the event our intentions are misunderstood.

Honesty in any venue is, for most of us, a daunting venture since we understand its potential risks. We have experienced how easily honesty is inferred as rudeness with catastrophic results. For the leader, however, honesty between and among colleagues is mandatory. The True Leader understands that honesty means there are fewer unwelcome surprises in the workplace. True Leadership avoids sugar-coating any circumstance with euphemisms, vagaries and oblique language. Out of concern for contentious conversations, modern leadership has migrated to a place where plain language is rare. Most leaders, certainly Level 1, 2 and 3 Leaders, avoid the use of plain, straightforward language due to their fear of communicating unequivocally yet diplomatically. Ask yourself: have you had a conversation or read an email at work and then wondered, “What is the person actually trying to say?”

Some may assert that there is a place for vague language in international negotiations, but unclear or ambiguous language is almost always confusing and can waste time as people seek clarification to avoid misunderstanding.

The use of oblique language is often the domain of ineffective managers and other LINOs (Leaders In Name Only) who utilize purposeful obfuscation as a protective strategy. By being unclear, the supervisor who utilizes this cushion of confusion can merely assert that they were misunderstood, permitting them wiggle room to interpret issues in ways that suit them best. This tactic places blame on those they oversee (who lack sufficient power to push back), further strengthening the LINO’s weak hold on authority.

There are many examples of this sort of vague language used in both private and public sectors. Chief among the most egregiously ambiguous words in conversation is the adjective “interesting.” This overused word has essentially lost all semantic value because it means anything and therefore nothing. My practice has long been to invite the user to use an alternate word in an effort to seek a straightforward view. When asked to substitute a more useful word, I often find that the user struggles. Another example of useless verbiage—often employed in contractual language—is the widely-used expression “but not limited to.” In each case these four words can be eliminated, leaving the intent of the passage completely unchanged, begging the question, “Does anyone give serious thought to what and how they communicate?”

            True Leadership devotes the time to consider the most appropriate and honest methods to communicate, paying attention to word choice and structure. Their spoken and written words are not glib, off-hand, or vague. A True Leader labors to expand and utilize a vocabulary that meets the needs of the organization and its stakeholders. They have no need to cloak themselves in obfuscation, understanding that honesty and accuracy of communication contribute to an environment of trust, confidence and connectedness.

©️Copyright by David Samore. This excerpt is from True Leadership: The 10 Universal Laws (2024), by David Samore, Ed.D. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore.


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